Tag Archives: metafiction
I’ve polished off another four from the Booker Prize longlist (my initial reactions and excerpts from existing reviews are here), with one more coming up for me next month.
Trust by Hernan Diaz
“History itself is just a fiction—a fiction with an army. And reality? Reality is a fiction with an unlimited budget.”
My synopsis for Bookmarks magazine:
Set in the 1920s and 1930s, this expansive novel is about the early days of New York City high finance. It is told through four interlocking narratives. The first is Bonds, a novel by Harold Vanner, whose main character is clearly based on tycoon Andrew Bevel. Bevel, outraged at his portrayal as well as the allegation that his late wife, Mildred, was a madwoman, responds by writing a memoir—the book’s second part. Part 3 is an account by Ida Partenza, Bevel’s secretary, who helps him plot revenge on Vanner. In the final section, Mildred finally gets her say. Her journal caps off a sumptuous, kaleidoscopic look at American capitalism.
Ghostwriter Ida’s section was much my favourite, for her voice as well as for how it leads you to go back to the previous part – some of it still in shorthand (“Father. Describe early memories of him. … MATH in great detail. Precocious talent. Anecdotes.”) and reassess its picture of Bevel. His short selling in advance of the Great Depression made him a fortune, but he defends himself: “My actions safeguarded American industry and business.” Mildred’s journal entries, clearly written through a fog of pain as she was dying from cancer, then force another rethink about the role she played in her husband’s decision making. With her genius-level memory, philanthropy and love of literature and music, she’s a much more interesting character than Bevel – that being the point, of course, that he steals the limelight. This is clever, clever stuff. However, as admirable as the pastiche sections might be (though they’re not as convincing as the first section of To Paradise), they’re ever so dull to read.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet
That GMB is quite the trickster. From the biographical sections, I definitely assumed that A. Collins Braithwaite was a real psychiatrist in the 1960s. A quick Google when I got to the end revealed that he only exists in this fictional universe. I enjoyed the notebooks recounting an unnamed young woman’s visits to Braithwaite’s office; holding the man responsible for her sister’s suicide, she books her appointments under a false name, Rebecca Smyth, and tries acting just mad (and sensual) enough to warrant her coming back. Her family stories, whether true or embellished, are ripe for psychoanalysis, and the more she inhabits this character she’s created the more she takes on her persona. (“And, perhaps on account of Mrs du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca had always struck me as the most dazzling of names. I liked the way its three short syllables felt in my mouth, ending in that breathy, open-lipped exhalation.” I had to laugh at this passage! I’ve always thought mine a staid name.) But the different documents don’t come together as satisfyingly as I expected, especially compared to His Bloody Project. (Public library)
Those two are both literary show-off stuff (the epistolary found documents strategy, metafiction): the kind of book I would have liked more in my twenties. I’m less impressed with games these days; I prefer the raw heart of this next one.
Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley
She may be only 20 years old, but Leila Mottley is the real deal. Her debut novel, laden with praise from her mentor Ruth Ozeki and many others, reminded me of Bryan Washington’s work. The first-person voice is convincing and mature as Mottley spins the (inspired by a true) story of an underage prostitute who testifies against the cops who have kept her in what is virtually sex slavery. At 17, Kiara is the de facto head of her household, with her father dead, her mother in a halfway house, and her older brother pursuing his dream of recording a rap album. When news comes of a rise in the rent and Kia stumbles into being paid for sex, she knows it’s her only way of staying in their Oakland apartment and looking after her neglected nine-year-old neighbour, Trevor.
I loved her relationships with Trevor, her best friend Alé (they crash funerals for the free food), and trans prostitute Camila, and the glimpses into prison life and police corruption. This doesn’t feel like misery for the sake of it, just realistic and compassionate documentation. There were a few places where I felt the joins showed, like a teacher had told her she needed to fill in some emotional backstory, and I noticed an irksome habit of turning adjectives into verbs or nouns (e.g., “full of all her loud,” “the sky is just starting to pastel”); perhaps this is an instinct from her start in poetry, but it struck me as precious. However, this is easily one of the more memorable 2022 releases I’ve read, and I’d love to see it on the shortlist and on other prize lists later this year and next. (Public library)
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
This was a DNF for me last year, but I tried again. The setup is simple: Lucy Barton’s ex-husband, William, discovers he has a half-sister he never knew about. William and Lucy travel from New York City to Maine in hopes of meeting her. For both of them, the quest sparks a lot of questions about how our origins determine who we are, and what William’s late mother, Catherine, was running from and to in leaving her husband and small child behind to forge a different life. Like Lucy, Catherine came from nothing; to an extent, everything that unfolded afterwards for them was a reaction against poverty and neglect.
The difficulty of ever really knowing another person, or even understanding oneself, is one of Strout’s recurring messages. There are a lot of strong lines and relatable feelings here. What I found maddening, though, is Lucy’s tentative phrasing, e.g. “And I cannot explain it except to say—oh, I don’t know what to say! Truly, it is as if I do not exist, I guess is the closest thing I can say.” She employs hedging statements like that all the time; it struck me as false that someone who makes a living by words would be so lacking in confidence about how to say what she means. So I appreciated the psychological insight but found Lucy’s voice annoying, even in such a short book. (Public library)
I’ve read 6 of the 13 at this point, have imminent plans to read After Sappho for a Shelf Awareness review, and would still like to read the Mortimer if my library system acquires it. The others? Meh. I might consider catching up if they’re shortlisted.
My book group wasn’t chosen to shadow the Booker Prize this year, which is fair enough since we already officially shadowed the Women’s Prize earlier in the year (here are the six successful book clubs, if you’re interested). However, we have been offered the chance to send in up to five interview questions for the shortlisted authors. The Q&As will then be part of a website feature. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that my non-holiday snap of a Booker Prize nominee turned up in this round-up!
Here’s my (not particularly scientific) reasoning for what might make the shortlist:
A literary puzzle novel
Trust by Hernan Diaz or Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet
- Trust feels more impressive, and timely; GMB already had his chance.
A contemporary novel
Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley or Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
- Oh William! is the weakest Strout novel I’ve read. Mottley’s is a fresh voice that deserves to be broadcast.
The Trees by Percival Everett or Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka
- Without having read either, I’m going to hazard a guess that the Everett is too Ameri-centric/similar to The Sellout. The Booker tends to reward colourful Commonwealth books. [EDITED to add that I forgot to take into my considerations Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo; while it doesn’t perfectly fit this category, as a political allegory it’s close enough that I’ll include it here. I would not be at all surprised if it made the shortlist, along with the Karunatilaka.]
A couple of historical novels
Booth by Karen Joy Fowler or After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz
A couple of Irish novels
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan or The Colony by Audrey Magee
- I’m hearing such buzz about the Magee, and there’s such love out there for the Keegan, that I reckon both of these will make it through.
The odd one out?
Treacle Walker by Alan Garner or Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer
- Maybe nostalgia will spur the judges to give Garner a chance in his 80s.
My predicted shortlist:
On Tuesday evening we’ll find out if I got any of these right!
What have you read from the longlist? What do you most want to read, or see on the shortlist?
Halfway through my flora-themed reading challenge with less than half of the summer left to go. However, I’m actually partway through another seven relevant reads, so I’m confident I’ll get to 20. The sticking point for me, as always, is finishing what I’ve started!
Today I have brief responses to the two nature/travel quest memoirs I took with me to the Outer Hebrides, plus a forthcoming Chilean novella about how a relationship is to be memorialized.
Marram: Memories of Sea and Spider Silk by Leonie Charlton (2020)
I think I’d already downloaded this to my Kindle when I saw Charlton interviewed by the Bookshop Band on their breakfast-time variety show during the 2020 online Wigtown Book Festival. In 2017, Charlton and her friend Shuna undertook a three-week pony trek through the Outer Hebrides. Like many, they worked their way south to north, starting at Barra and finishing on Lewis (we travelled in the opposite direction on our recent trip).
Although it was a low-key fundraising project for her daughter’s traditional music school, for Charlton there was another underlying reason. Her difficult mother, a jewellery maker, had died of brain cancer seven years before, and she had the idea of leaving beads from her mum’s collection (she’d actually nicknamed her daughter “Beady,” though for her eyes) along the route to lay her and their complicated relationship to rest. As one of her mother’s friends put it, “She was a nightmare, and wonderful, and totally impossible.”
I enjoyed the blend of topics – the amazing scenery, the rigours of the trail, the kindness of acquaintances and strangers who gave them places to camp and graze the ponies, and painful memories – and probably got more out of it because I was reading on location. Her regrets about her mother formed a larger part of the book than expected, but that wasn’t a problem for me; you might steer clear if this would be triggering, though. (Read via NetGalley)
Orchid Summer: In Search of the Wildest Flowers of the British Isles by Jon Dunn (2018)
Dunn saw all but one of Britain’s native species of orchid (51–55, depending on how you count; subspecies are still being debated) between the spring and autumn of 2016; only the ghost orchid eluded him. He alternates between his whistlestop travels, the backstory to his nature obsession, and the historical and cultural associations with orchids. “I was rapidly learning that orchids exert an influence unlike any other plant upon those who fall under their spell, he writes” (in that vein, I also recommend Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief).
I most enjoyed the chapters set in North Uist – where he goes to find the Hebridean marsh orchid – and his adopted home of Shetland; it’s always fun to read about somewhere I am or have been before (also including Lindisfarne). The number-driven quest seems like a peculiarly male undertaking, e.g. the similar The Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham, and orchids in particular are surrounded by secrecy – you have to be in the know to locate rarities, which often seem to be in roadside ditches. Dunn evades potential accusations of elitism or machismo, though, by recounting vulnerable moments: when he inadvertently strayed onto a golf course and got verbally abused; when some lads stopped their car to harass him.
In general, this is denser with information than all but the keenest amateur botanists need, so I didn’t engage with it as much as his book about hummingbirds, The Glitter in the Green, but Dunn is a top-class nature and travel writer who really brings places and species to life on the page through his enthusiastic descriptions. Still, I wish this could have been illustrated with colour plates, as the author is an equally accomplished photographer. (Public library)
Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra (2006; 2022)
[Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell]
“In Emilia and Julio’s story … there are more omissions than lies, and fewer omissions than truths”
These college students’ bond is primarily physical, with an overlay of intellectual pretentiousness: they read to each other from the likes of Proust before they go to bed. Zambra, a Chilean poet and fiction writer, zooms in and out to spotlight each one’s other connections with friends and lovers and presage how the past will lead to separate futures. Already we see Julio thinking about how this time-limited relationship will be remembered in memory and in writing. The plot of a story Zambra references in this allusion-heavy work, “Tantalia” by Macedonio Fernández, provides the title: a couple buy a small plant to signify their love, but realize that maybe wasn’t a great idea given that plants can die.
Tending a bonsai is like writing, thinks Julio. Writing is like tending a bonsai, Julio thinks.
At scarcely 60 pages, with plenty of blank space between sections, this feels most like a short story. Bonsai symbolism aside, I didn’t find much to latch onto. Zambra is playing literary games here – “Let’s say her name is or was Emilia and that his name is, was, and will be Julio,” he writes in the first paragraph – and indulging an appetite for metafiction. Drawing attention to the arbitrary nature of creation made this feel generic and soulless, like the author wasn’t committed to or fond of his characters and their story. This wasn’t my cup of tea, but fans of Open Water and Normal People who also love spare writing in translation might enjoy it.
With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review. Bonsai will be published on August 17th.
Each September I make a special effort to read short stories, which otherwise tend to languish on my shelves unread. In 2020 I read eight collections for this challenge. This year I hope to outdo myself. I’m knee-deep in seven more collections at the moment, including a couple from the library and two from my set-aside-temporarily shelf. Here’s my first four.
Medusa’s Ankles: Selected Stories by A.S. Byatt (2021)
I’ve long considered Byatt my favourite author, and have read all of her published short story collections before. One I even reread last year. So when approaching this chronological selection of 18 stories, I skipped the couple I’d read recently, even though that includes perhaps my favourite stand-alone story of all time (“Medusa’s Ankles”), plus a few more that I’d read before. This time around, I found I wasn’t as interested in the historical stories in the Angels and Insects or Possession vein – chiefly “Precipice-Encurled,” a long story about Robert Browning from her first collection – and instead focused on stories where fantasy or horror breaks into everyday life, and writerly or metafictional ones.
As David Mitchell notes in his introduction, Byatt’s range, from fairy tales to historical realism, is almost overwhelming; it’s hard to do it justice in a short review, but I’ll highlight five brilliant stories beyond the title one. “The July Ghost,” an early story, is another that has stuck with me over the years, turning up in one of my Six Degrees posts. It’s a straight-up ghost story but also a tale within a tale being recounted by a man at a party, and blends sex and death in a creepy way. “Racine and the Tablecloth” pits a clever boarding school girl and her literature professor against each other in a tacit psychological conflict. “Who won, you will ask, Emily or Miss Crichton-Walker, since the Reader is mythical and detached?”
“A Lamia in the Cévennes,” about a seductive snake-spirit living in a painter’s swimming pool, provides a delicious lick of magic. I’m surprised I didn’t remember “Raw Material,” as it was a favourite on this reread. A working-class author teaches his creative writing students to write what they know and avoid melodrama. Yet most of them craft over-the-top graphic tales of torture and revenge. Only an unassuming octogenarian follows his instructions, spinning lovingly meticulous accounts of polishing stoves and washing laundry by hand in the old days. He is captivated by her stories, reading them aloud to an unappreciative class and even entering them into a competition. But the old woman’s life holds a sordid surprise. It’s mind-blowing how Byatt turns all our expectations for this story on their head and forces us to question nostalgia and the therapeutic value of writing fiction.
Five of the late stories were originally printed in other publications and had not previously been collected. Of these, I most liked “Dolls’ Eyes” (2013), which is available as a Comma Singles e-book and was in the anthology The New Uncanny. A schoolteacher who lives in a house full of dolls welcomes a new fellow teacher to be her lodger and trusts her with her love and her dolls, only to be betrayed and call down vengeance. “Sea Story,” which appeared in the Guardian, is a thoroughly depressing closer about the persistence of plastic (but how about that last line?!).
One of the things I most admire about Byatt is her use of colour, and visual detail in general. As Mitchell puts it, “It is not easy to think of another writer with so painterly and exact an eye for the colours, textures and appearances of things. The visual is in constant dialogue with the textual.” Witness in the autobiographical “Sugar” the descriptions of boiled sweets being made almost like blown glass in a grandfather’s factory, or the colourful minerals participating in the metamorphosis in “A Stone Woman.”
If you’re new to Byatt’s work, picking a handful of stories from this collection would be a great way of trying out her style and figuring out which of her full-length books you might like to read. Fans of Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes and Michèle Roberts are specially invited to the feast. (Public library)
Some favourite lines:
“Such wonder, such amazement, are the opposite, the exact opposite, of boredom, and many people only know them after fear and loss. Once known, I believe, they cannot be completely forgotten; they cast flashes and floods of paradisal light in odd places and at odd times.”
“the world is full of light and life, and the true crime is not to be interested in it. You have a way in. Take it. It may incidentally be a way out, too, as all skills are.”
After that in-depth review, I’ll give just brief responses to the next three slim volumes.
Slaughter by Rosanna Hildyard (2021)
A debut trio of raw stories set in the Yorkshire countryside. In “Offcomers,” the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak threatens the happiness of a sheep-farming couple. The effects of rural isolation on a relationship resurface in “Outside Are the Dogs.” In “Cull Yaw,” a vegetarian gets involved with a butcher who’s keen on marketing mutton and ends up helping him with a grisly project. This was the stand-out for me. I appreciated the clear-eyed look at where food comes from. At the same time, narrator Star’s mother is ailing: a reminder that decay is inevitable and we are all naught but flesh and blood. I liked the prose well enough, but found the characterization a bit thin. One for readers of Andrew Michael Hurley and Cynan Jones. (See also Annabel’s review.)
A favourite passage:
“his mother silently spoons out second helpings of beef lasagne. Outside, the lasagne’s sisters cavort in the paddock.”
This story pamphlet was released by Broken Sleep Books, an indie publisher in Wales, in March. My thanks to Annabel for passing on her review copy.
This Hostel Life by Melatu Uche Okorie (2018)
Okorie emigrated from Nigeria to Ireland in 2005. Her time living in a direct provision hostel for asylum seekers informed the title story about women queuing for and squabbling over food rations, written in an African pidgin. In “Under the Awning,” a Black woman fictionalizes her experiences of racism into a second-person short story her classmates deem too bleak. The Author’s Note reveals that Okorie based this one on comments she herself got in a writers’ group. “The Egg Broke” returns to Nigeria and its old superstition about twins.
Fans of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will find a similar voice here, and enough variety to distract from the low page count (the book is padded out with an essay on refugees in Ireland) and so-so writing. (Little Free Library)
Dear George and Other Stories by Helen Simpson (1995)
This is the third time Simpson has made it into one of my September features (after Four Bare Legs in a Bed in 2018 and In the Driver’s Seat in 2019); safe to say she’s becoming one of my favourite short story writers. Deciding to have children (or not) looms large. In “When in Rome,” Geraldine is relieved to get her period as her relationship limps to an end. In “Last Orders,” the heavily pregnant protagonist, now 12 days overdue, fears the transformation ahead of her. “To Her Unready Boyfriend,” echoing Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” has the narrator warn him time runs short for babymaking.
I also liked “Bed and Breakfast,” about a young couple hoping not to turn into their boring parents; “Caput Apri” and its magical twist on the story behind “The Boar’s Head Carol” (a Christmas story or two is a trademark of Simpson’s collections, like the focus on motherhood); and “Heavy Weather,” in which parents of two small children have a manic Dorset holiday that takes in some beloved sites like Hardy’s cottage and marvel at the simultaneous joys and tyranny of childrearing.
The gentle absurdity of “The Immaculate Bridegroom” reminded me of a previous Simpson story in which a woman marries herself, and “Creative Writing” connects back to two of the other collections I’ve featured here with its writers’ workshop setting. (Secondhand purchase from Oxfam Books, Hexham)
Some favourite lines:
“You will not be you any more, her ego told her id. Not only will you have produced somebody else from inside you, someone quite different and separate, but you yourself will change into somebody quite different, overnight – a Mother.”
“Children were petal-skinned ogres, Frances realized, callous and whimsical, holding autocratic sway over lower, larger vassals like herself.”
Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?
Is it possible to capture the complete course of a life, whether looking from the outside or telling it from the inside? What is set in stone and what is fleeting? These are questions Carol Shields addresses in her 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner, which plays with perspective and forms of storytelling as it conveys the extra/ordinary life of Daisy Stone Goodwill Flett. What with the family tree and section of black-and-white photographs, you might expect this to be a family saga; with the chronological chapters proceeding from “Birth” in 1905 to “Death” in the 1990s, you might expect an objective faux-biography. But The Stone Diaries is neither.
The facts are these. Daisy’s mother, Mercy, dies giving birth to her in rural Manitoba. Raised by a neighbor, Daisy later moves to Indiana with her stonecutter father, Cuyler. After a disastrously short first marriage, Daisy returns to Canada to marry Barker Flett. Their three children and Ottawa garden become her life. She temporarily finds purpose in her empty-nest years by writing a “Mrs. Green Thumb” column for a local newspaper, but her retirement in Florida is plagued by illness and the feeling that she has missed out on what matters most.
What makes this surprising life story so remarkable is its unpicking of (auto)biographical authenticity: Shields switches between the first and third person, between Daisy’s point of view and a feigned omniscience. Some sections foreground others’ opinions: Chapter 6 is composed entirely of letters Daisy receives, while Chapter 7 collects short first-person narratives from her children and friends as they speculate on why she has fallen into a depression.
As in Shields’s Happenstance and Larry’s Party, which I’ve also reread this year, I was struck by the role that chance plays in any life:
History indeed! As though this paltry slice of time deserves such a name. Accident, not history, has called us together, and what an assembly we make. What confusion, what a clamor of inadequacy and portent.
Talk of bias, gaps and unreliability undermines the narrative:
Well, a childhood is what anyone wants to remember of it. It leaves behind no fossils, except perhaps in fiction. Which is why you want to take Daisy’s representation of events with a grain of salt, a bushel of salt.
Daisy herself almost disappears from the parts of the book where she is voiceless, consumed by her roles – by the end she is universally known as “Grandma Flett.” This meant that other characters stood out as more memorable to me: Cuyler for his obsessive building of stone monuments and streams of words, Barker for his love of plants and long-deferred sexual fulfillment, Daisy’s friend Fraidy Hoyt for her careful chronicling of fast living, and Magnus, Barker’s father, who lives long past his 100th birthday after his return to the Orkney Islands.
As in Moon Tiger, one of my absolute favorites, the author explores how events and memories turn into artifacts. The meta approach also, I suspect, tips the hat to other works of Canadian literature: in her introduction, Margaret Atwood mentions that the poet whose story inspired Shields’s Mary Swann had a collection entitled A Stone Diary, and surely the title’s similarity to Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (1964) can’t be pure coincidence.
Experiencing the novel again after 14 years, I was impressed by the experimentation but ultimately somewhat detached from the story. It was admiration rather than love; I enjoyed earlier chapters more than the last few. But isn’t that just like life, to keep going past the point where it’s fun? And isn’t that the point, that the meaning you long for may not be there at all?
Marcie (Buried in Print) and I have reread – or, in my case for half of them, read for the first time – six Shields novels together in 2020. I hope I’ll find time to respond to the rest of them in the next few weeks. It has been so rewarding to observe how her themes recur and interlock. How heartening to see that, 17 years after her death, Shields is still being read and remembered, through the World Editions reissues (three more are coming in 2021) and through the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, a new $100,000 annual award for North American women’s writing.
The Stone Diaries was reissued in the UK by World Editions on December 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
I was delighted to be invited to help close out the blog tour for The Stone Diaries. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared.
Before this year, I’d read only one book by Paul Auster: Timbuktu, which fit into last year’s all-animal 20 Books of Summer for its canine main character. This year I’ve enjoyed having Annabel’s Paul Auster Reading Week as an excuse to binge on more Auster, including one of his memoirs, Winter Journal, and his most famous set of novels, the New York Trilogy. I’m reading another two Auster books, one fiction and nonfiction, and will see if I can finish and write them up before the week ends.
Winter Journal (2012)
This is one of the most remarkable memoirs I’ve ever read. Approaching age 64 and the winter of his life, Auster decided to assemble his most visceral memories. Here he parades them past in a seemingly random order yet manages to give a sense of the sweep of his life. The use of the second person draws readers in to (re-)experience things along with the author, while also creating an artistic distance between the subject and his reminiscences. Auster describes his aim thus:
Time is running out, after all. Perhaps it is just as well to put aside your stories for now and try to examine what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one. A catalogue of sensory data. What one might call a phenomenology of breathing.
His life reappears through scars, through accidents and near-misses, through what his hands felt and his eyes observed. A three-year-old rips his cheek open on a protruding nail in a department store. A teenager slowly builds up a portfolio of sexual experiences. A young man lives and works in Paris and the South of France. A marriage to one fellow author (Lydia Davis) ends and a relationship with another (Siri Hustvedt) begins. A fiftysomething rushing to get home to the toilet makes an ill-advised turn against traffic and totals his car – luckily, he and his family escape unhurt. Numbness after his mother’s death cedes to a panic attack.
I particularly enjoyed the 53-page section in which Auster gives tours through the 21 places he’s lived since infancy, recounting the details he remembers of the dwellings and what happened during his time there. It’s impressive how much he can condense, but also how much he can convey in just a few pages on each home. This is the sort of format I could imagine borrowing for a short autobiographical piece – it would be a way of redeeming that involuntarily nomadic period when my husband and I moved every six to 18 months.
Reading this alongside the New York Trilogy allowed me to spot the ways, big and small, in which those novels draw on Auster’s life story. I’m now keen to read more of his nonfiction, especially The Invention of Solitude, which offended his relatives by revealing the shameful family story of how his grandmother shot and killed his grandfather in their kitchen.
Annabel says: “The book is written in the second person – addressing himself; it gives a real sense of intimacy to his story. … Auster is an unconventional, analytical and eloquent writer, and this unconventional memoir was a delight to read, he can look with humour at himself as well as being serious.”
Laura F. says: “You know how people say they’d read anything by their favourite author, even a grocery list? Winter Journal gets pretty close to that territory. … I’ve never read a memoir like this, and though focused on the physical, it’s a fully emotional experience.”
Some favorite lines:
“as long as you continue to travel, the nowhere that lies between the here of home and the there of somewhere else will continue to be one of the places where you live.”
“We are all aliens to ourselves, and if we have any sense of who we are, it is only because we live inside the eyes of others.”
“you can only conclude that every life is marked by a number of close calls, that everyone who manages to reach the age you have come to now has already wriggled out of a number of potentially absurd, nonsensical deaths. All in the course of what you would call ordinary life.”
The New York Trilogy
(also my Doorstopper of the Month at 580 pages)
City of Glass (1985)
A metafictional mystery about a crime writer named Daniel Quinn who turns private investigator when he gets a phone call asking for the Paul Auster Detective Agency. This is one of those books where what actually happens is a lot less important than the atmosphere it creates. So what feels essential to me here is the sense of a labyrinthine New York City and a confusion of languages and relationships. Quinn, who is helpfully untethered after the death of his wife and son, is hired to tail Peter Stillman’s father, who has recently been released from a mental hospital, where he was sentenced after being judged insane for keeping his son in isolation in a dark apartment for nine years.
Feral children, maps, eggs, the Tower of Babel and Don Quixote are some of the recurring sources of metaphors in a deliberately disorienting and intertextually rich short novel that kept me turning the pages even when I didn’t know precisely what was going on. We get a glimpse of Auster himself, and are invited to muse on such tiny subjects as destiny, the limitations of language, the purpose of books, and the nature of truth. I’m curious to see whether the other two novels follow on from the story at all or just resemble it thematically.
I jumped straight into this from City of Glass, and it suffered by comparison. It is not a sequel per se, because it has different characters and is set in the late 1940s instead of the early 1980s, but it shares some of the same concerns (with literature, identity, doubling, the essential otherness of the writer, and so on) and again is a sort of metafictional mystery.
Part of why I couldn’t take this novella entirely seriously is the silly naming: White hires Blue to trail Black (really; all of the secondary characters are named after colors, too). It turns out Black is a writer who does little besides sit in his apartment, writing. Only when Blue disguises himself as a tramp and then as a salesman and meets Black in various other contexts does he realize that Black, too, is an investigator … writing up a case of following a writer who hardly leaves his desk.
While I appreciated the circularity and the uncertainty over whether these accidental twins would destroy each other, as well as the literary references to Whitman, Thoreau and Hawthorne, the whole felt slightly inconsequential (“Blue watches Black, and little of anything happens.”). Plotlessness is part of the point, but makes for only a moderately interesting read.
[There is one coded reference to Auster here: the fact that the book opens on February 3, 1947, the day he was born.]
The Locked Room (1986)
While most of the New York Trilogy is told in the third person, this is a first-person narrative that seems to pick up where City of Glass left off. It begins in 1977, when the unnamed narrator gets a letter from Sophie Fanshawe, the wife of his childhood best friend, telling him that Fanshawe disappeared six months ago, and despite the best efforts of a detective, Quinn (in another link to CoG, the narrator encounters Peter Stillman on a later trip to Paris), no trace can be found. The narrator has been named Fanshawe’s literary executor and takes it upon himself to get the man’s unpublished work out into the world: plays are produced, novels are published. He also starts writing a biography of the friend he always envied.
Except it’s more like he’s becoming Fanshawe, especially when he marries Sophie. Doubling has been a major theme of the trilogy, and here the metaphorical kill-or-be-killed situation seems to turn literal at the conclusion, which I didn’t particularly understand (e.g. he acquires and destroys a red notebook – is this in some way meant to be the same red notebook Quinn left behind at the end of CoG?). The narrator presents himself as the author of all three books, and asserts, “These three stories are finally the same story, but each one represents a different stage in my awareness of what it is about. I don’t claim to have solved any problems.”
The metafictional aspect of this novel is that Fanshawe’s early life is a lot like Auster’s as revealed in Winter Journal, while Sophie’s resembles his wife Siri Hustvedt’s (and the pair would later name their daughter Sophie).
Themes of the trilogy:
- Identity complications, including disguises, doubles and substitutes
- Writers and writing; the creator versus characters
- The limits of language (e.g. Stillman’s monologue in CoG is astonishing)
- Freedom/randomness versus fate
One representative passage from each volume:
- “New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighbourhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. … New York was the nowhere he had built around himself” (City of Glass)
- “Writing is a solitary business. It takes over your life. In some sense, a writer has no life of his own. Even when he’s there, he’s not really there. / Another ghost. / Exactly.” (Ghosts)
- “In the end, each life is no more than the sum of contingent facts, a chronicle of chance intersections, of flukes, of random events that divulge nothing but their own lack of purpose.” (The Locked Room)
My rating for the trilogy as a whole:
Have you tried anything by Paul Auster? Grab one of his books and join us for this week’s readalong!
Memoirs of adoption and a life steeped in trauma and sex; a metafictional mystery about an inscrutable artist and his would-be biographer; and a European graphic novel about a thief. You can’t say I don’t read a wide variety of books! See if one or more of these can tempt you.
The Ginger Child: On Family, Loss and Adoption by Patrick Flanery
Patrick Flanery is a professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London and the author of four novels. In his first nonfiction book, he chronicles the arduous four-year journey he and his husband took to try and become parents. For a short time they considered surrogacy, but it’s so difficult in the UK that they switched tracks to domestic adoption.
The resulting memoir is a somber, meditative book that doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of queer family-making, but also sees some potential advantages: to an extent, one has the privilege of choice – he and Andrew specified that they couldn’t raise a child with severe disabilities or trauma, but were fine with one of any race – whereas biological parents don’t really have any idea of what they’re going to get. However, same-sex couples are plagued by bureaucracy and, yes, prejudice still. Nothing comes easy. They have to fill out a 50-page questionnaire about their concerns and what they have to offer a child. A social worker humiliates them by forcing them to do a dance-off video game to prove that a pair of introverted, cultured academics can have fun, too.
Eventually there’s a successful match and they have tentative meetings with four-year-old O—, his parents’ fifth child, now in foster care. But this is not a blithe story of everything going right. I enjoyed the glimpses of Flanery’s growing-up years in Nebraska and the occasional second-person address to O—, but there is a lot more theory and cultural criticism than I expected, and much of the film talk, at least, feels like irrelevant asides.
With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James
This is a twisty, clever meta novel about “Daniel James” desperately trying to write a biography of Ezra Maas, an enigmatic artist who grew up a child prodigy in Oxford and attracted a cult following in 1960s New York City, where he was a friend of Warhol et al. But, with rumors abounding that The Maas Foundation is preparing to announce Ezra’s death in 2011, James finds that his subject’s story keeps shifting shape and even disappearing around him – as one interviewee tells him, “Maas is a black hole. His presence draws everything in, warps, destroys, changes, and rewrites it.”
The book’s epistolary style deftly combines fragments of various document types: James’s biography-in-progress and an oral history he’s assembled from conversations with those who knew Maas, his narrative of his quest, transcripts of interviews and phone conversations, e-mails and more. All of this has been brought together into manuscript form by an anonymous editor whose presence is indicated through coy but increasingly tiresome long footnotes.
Look at the sort of authors who get frequent mentions in the footnotes, though, and you’ll get an idea of whether this might appeal to you: Paul Auster, Samuel Beckett, George Orwell and Thomas Pynchon. I enjoyed the noir atmosphere – complete with dream sequences and psychiatric evaluations – and the way that James the “writer-detective” has to careen around Europe and America looking for answers; it all feels rather like a superior Jason Bourne film.
My thanks to the author for sending a free signed copy for review.
Memoirs of a Book Thief by Alessandro Tota (illustrated by Pierre Van Hove)
[translated from the French by Edward Gauvin]
In April 1953, Daniel Brodin translates an obscure Italian poem in his head to recite at a poetry reading but, improbably, someone recognizes it. Soon afterwards, he’s also caught stealing a book from a shop. Just a little plagiarism and shoplifting? It might have stayed that way until he met Gilles and Linda, fellow thieves, and their bodyguard, Jean-Michel, a big blond goon with Gérard Dépardieu’s nose and haircut. Now he’s known as “Klepto” and is part of a circle that drinks at the Café Sully and mixes with avant-garde and Existentialist figures. He’s content with being a nobody and writing his memoirs (the book within the book) – until Jean-Michel makes him a proposition.
The book is entirely in black and white, which makes it seem unfinished, and the style is a little grotesque. For instance, Brodin is almost always depicted with beads of sweat rolling off his head. The intricate outdoor scenes were much more to my taste than the faces. The plot is also slightly thin and the ending abrupt. So, compared with many other graphic novels, this is not one I’m likely to recommend.
With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
This really blew me away. “Out of the sad sack of sad shit that was my life, I made a wordhouse,” Yuknavitch writes. Her nonlinear memoir ranges from her upbringing with an alcoholic, manic-depressive mother and an abusive father via the stillbirth of her daughter and her years of alcohol and drug use through to the third marriage where she finally got things right and allowed herself to feel love again after so much numbness. Reading this, you’re amazed that the author is still alive, let alone thriving as a writer.
Ken Kesey, who led a collaborative novel-writing workshop in which she participated in the late 1980s, once asked her what the best thing was that ever happened to her. Swimming, she answered, because it felt like the only thing she was good at. In the water she was at home and empowered. Kesey reassured her that swimming wasn’t her only talent: there is some truly dazzling writing here, veering between lyrical stream-of-consciousness and in-your-face informality.
There are so many vivid sequences, but two that stood out for me were cutting down a tree the Christmas she was four and the way her mother turned her teeth-chattering crisis into a survival game, and the drunken collision she had after her second ex-husband told her he was seeing a 23-year-old. With the caveat that this is extremely explicit stuff (the author is bisexual; there’s an all-female threesome and S&M parties), I would still highly recommend it to readers of Joan Didion, Anne Lamott and Maggie Nelson. The watery metaphor flowing through, as one woman learns to float free of what once threatened to drown her, is only part of what makes it unforgettable. You’ll marvel at what a memoir can do.
A couple of favorite passages:
“It is possible to carry life and death in the same sentence. In the same body. It is possible to carry love and pain. In the water, this body I have come to slides through the wet with a history. What if there is hope in that?”
“Make up stories until you find one you can live with. Make up stories as if life depended on it.”
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Got any romantic plans for the morrow? I’ll be having my first of six evening yoga classes at our local Waitrose (was a more middle-class phrase ever written?!), but I’ve been promised a nice dinner with dessert on my return.
Like last year, I’ve been reading a few books with “love” in the title – plus one featuring “lust” this time – in advance of the day and can report back on what I’ve gleaned. Nothing particularly optimistic about marriage or true love, I’m afraid.
Lust in Translation: Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee by Pamela Druckerman (2007)
Druckerman travels from France (where she lives) to the United States, Russia, Japan, South Africa, Indonesia and China, interviewing professionals and anonymous adulterers and pondering what makes people cheat and what difference country of origin makes. Boiling it down, people in poor countries, even in parts of Africa where AIDS is a huge threat, are more likely to have multiple sexual partners than those in wealthy countries. Statistically speaking, there’s also a slight bias towards adultery in warmer countries. However, some factors that you might expect to have a big effect on the adultery rate, like religiosity (e.g. America vs. France), actually hardly do. What does differ is the level of guilt experienced over infidelity and its concomitant offense, lying. In places like France and Japan she discovers more of a don’t-ask-don’t-tell attitude: as long as the straying partner is discreet enough not to be caught, the other turns a blind eye.
Travel-based quest narratives like this usually have a personal element that helps to anchor a book. The other direction Druckerman might have taken would be a straightforward academic study, which her journalistic tone wouldn’t suit. Because this book hovers between genres/levels of discourse, it didn’t quite work for me, but if you think you might find the subject matter interesting it’s at least worth skimming.
A representative line:
“The pursuit of happiness, or true love, is one of the most salient stories that Americans use to justify affairs and overcome their moral qualms about cheating.”
Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (2007)
Even if you don’t have any particular interest in architect Frank Lloyd Wright, this carefully crafted and lovingly written historical novel is well worth reading. Mamah (“May-muh”) Borthwick Cheney and her husband Edwin hired Wright to design their suburban Chicago home in 1903, and in 1907 she and Wright embarked on an affair. The novel covers roughly the next seven years of their lives, and is particularly illuminating about relationships, the rights of women and the morality code of the time. Through Mamah’s eyes Horan shows just why this affair was irresistible: “Frank Lloyd Wright was a life force. He seemed to fill whatever space he occupied with a pulsing energy that was spiritual, sexual, and intellectual all at once.” But in the eyes of the public, and of their families, it was a selfish choice that left her two children adrift. Beside Mamah, Catherine Wright was held up as a paragon of fidelity, waiting patiently for Frank to come back to her and their seven children.
If you think you are at all likely to read this book, DO NOT GOOGLE Mamah Borthwick Cheney, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s life in these years. I’m now keen to compare this with T.C. Boyle’s The Women, which is about Catherine, Mamah and two other important female figures in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life.
A representative passage:
“Does that mean I have to play this hand to the bitter end, full of regret? Knowing I might have had the happiest life imaginable with the one man I love more than any other I have ever known?”
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus (1997)
This is one of the stranger novels I’ve ever read. It’s December 1994 and failed filmmaker Chris Kraus, 39, and her husband, 56-year-old professor Sylvère Lotringer, spend a night at the home of Dick, one of his California colleagues, to mark the end of Sylvère’s sabbatical. When they wake up the next morning Dick is gone, but he’s made a huge impression on Chris. She decides she and Dick have had something like D.H. Lawrence’s ‘sex in the head’, and becomes obsessed with him. Chris and Sylvère address reams of letters and journal entries to Dick. Some they send and some they don’t; Dick is a total blank, which allows the couple to build fantasies around him. It’s a chance for Chris to reimagine a life that’s gotten away from her and regain her voice.
I preferred Part 1, which I found quite funny. Kraus lost me a bit in Part 2, with a trip to Guatemala plus random exhibits and performance art. I think the whole thing would have been more effective at novella length. But it’s intriguing how it blends fact and fiction (Dick Hebdige is a real person, and apparently not happy about the invasion of his privacy) and adapts the epistolary form. An afterword by Joan Hawkins notes the similarity to Dangerous Liaisons, in which a couple exchange letters about a seduction plot.
A representative passage:
No woman is an island-ess. We fall in love in hope of anchoring ourselves to someone else, to keep from falling,
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (1945)
Last year I unwittingly read the 1949 sequel, Love in a Cold Climate, first. I rather enjoyed that one, but somehow wasn’t in the mood for Mitford this time around, and ended up just skimming this one. Once again Fanny traces the love life of one of her posh cousins. This time it’s Linda Radlett, whose two marriages – to a Conservative and a Communist – are doomed to failure. Then she finds her true love, too late. I liked the ball scene, and the image of Uncle Matthew using his bloodhounds to hunt down his children. Mitford mixes the lighthearted and the caustic in an amusing way. The last two pages of this novel turn particularly nasty, though, which made me wonder how people can call this a comfort read.
A representative passage:
“What we would never admit was the possibility of lovers after marriage. We were looking for real love, and that could only come once in a lifetime; it hurried to consecration, and thereafter never wavered. Husbands, we knew, were not always faithful, this we must be prepared for, we must understand and forgive.”
Have you read anything love-ly lately?
Each month I aim to preview two to four books to be released in the next month that I have already read and can recommend. It’s looking thin on the ground for August because two of my most anticipated reads of the year were disappointments, and another August release I left unfinished; I give mini write-ups of these below. However, I’ve very much enjoyed What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, the debut story collection by Lesley Nneka Arimah, which came out in America in April but releases on the 24th over here; I’ll be reviewing it for Shiny New Books shortly. Also, I’m 20% into The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson (releases August 15th), a fascinating set of sometimes gory true crime case studies.
As for the one August book I’m currently able to wholeheartedly recommend, that is…
The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading by Anne Gisleson
(Coming from Little, Brown and Company on the 22nd)
One for angsty, bookish types. In 2012 Anne Gisleson, a New Orleans-based creative writing teacher, her husband, sister and some friends formed an Existential Crisis Reading Group (which, for the record, I think would have been a better title). Each month they got together to discuss their lives and their set readings – both expected and off-beat selections, everything from Kafka and Tolstoy to Kingsley Amis and Clarice Lispector – over wine and snacks.
One of their texts, Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, proposed the helpful notion of the Trivial and Tragic Planes. The Trivial is where we live everyday; the Tragic is where we’re transported when something awful happens. Gisleson had plenty of experience with the latter: not just the suicides of her younger twin sisters, a year and a half apart, and her father’s death from leukemia, but also the collective loss of Hurricane Katrina. She returns again and again to these sources of grief in her monthly chapters structured around the book group meetings, elegantly interweaving family stories and literary criticism.
I found the long quotes from the readings a little much – you probably shouldn’t pick this up if you haven’t the least interest in philosophy and aren’t much troubled by life’s big questions – but in general this is a fascinating, personal look at what makes life worth living when it might be shattered any second. I particularly loved the chapter in which the book club members creatively re-enact the Stations of the Cross for Easter and the sections about her father’s pro bono work as an attorney for death row inmates at Angola prison. Sometimes it really is a matter of life and death.
“Generations of parents have put their children to bed in this house and even if I haven’t quite figured out the why and the how of living, others have found reasons to keep moving things forward. In quiet moments I can feel the collective push of these ghost-hands on my back, nudging me on.”
And now for the ones I’m closer to lukewarm on…
(Reviews in the order in which I read the books.)
Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
(Coming from Scribner on the 1st)
I enjoy Tom Perrotta’s novels: they’re funny, snappy, current and relatable; it’s no surprise they make great movies. I’ve somehow read seven of his nine books now, without even realizing it. Mrs. Fletcher is more of the same satire on suburban angst, but with an extra layer of raunchiness that struck me as unnecessary. It seemed something like a sexual box-ticking exercise. But for all the deliberately edgy content, this book isn’t really doing anything very groundbreaking; it’s the same old story of temptations and bad decisions, but with everything basically going back to a state of normality by the end. If you haven’t read any Perrotta before and are interested in giving his work a try, let me steer you towards Little Children instead. That’s his best book by far.
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
(Coming from Lenny Books on the 1st [USA] and Bloomsbury Circus on the 10th [UK])
I read “We Love You Crispina” (13%), about the string of awful hovels a family of Chinese immigrants is forced to move between in early 1990s New York City. You’d think it would be unbearably sad reading about cockroaches and shared mattresses and her father’s mistress, but Zhang’s deadpan litanies are actually very funny: “After Woodside we moved to another floor, this time in my mom’s cousin’s friend’s sister’s apartment in Ocean Hill that would have been perfect except for the nights when rats ran over our faces while we were sleeping and even on the nights they didn’t, we were still being charged twice the cost of a shitty motel.” Perhaps I’m out of practice in reading short story collections, but after I finished this first story I felt absolutely no need to move on to the rest of the book.
Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss
(Coming on the 24th from Harper [USA] and Bloomsbury [UK])
Impressive in scope and structure, but rather frustrating. If you’re hoping for another History of Love, you’re likely to come away disappointed: while that book touched the heart; this one is mostly cerebral. Metafiction, the Kabbalah, and some alternative history featuring Kafka are a few of the major elements, so think about whether those topics attract or repel you. Looking a bit deeper, this is a book about Jewish self-invention and reinvention. Now, when I read a novel with a dual narrative, especially when the two strands share a partial setting – here, the Tel Aviv Hilton – I fully expect them to meet up at some point. In Forest Dark that never happens. At least, I don’t think so.* I sometimes found “Nicole” (the author character) insufferably clever and inward-gazing. All told, there’s a lot to think about here: more questions than answers, really. Interesting, for sure, but not the return to form I’d hoped for.
*Hop over to my Goodreads review to read the marked spoilers and chip in with comments!